The string is awfully long in June.
But the Cincinnati Reds were out of legitimate playoff contention before many school children hit pools for summer, and indeed have been basically “playing out the string” of a forgettable season since early June.
Though it means little for this year in terms of standings, the Reds are on the brink of posting consecutive winning months.
After a disastrous first three months of the season that saw the club establish a number of dubious low-water marks, the Reds posted a respectable 13-11 record in July, and are 12-10 so far in August.
By Independence Day, a dead-last finish seemed a foregone conclusion. Now, the Reds are just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for last in the N.L. Central.
Hey, it’s something.
The pitching, particularly the bullpen has improved as the season has gone on. Of course, a strong argument can be made that the club’s two best relievers over this improved stretch, Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen, should eventually be in the rotation.
Like mad scientists blending hazardous chemicals, the mix concocted by this Reds brain trust was a combustible blend that very nearly exploded in historic fashion, but appears now to be a super juice that has Joey Votto batting nearly .450 since the All-Star break, Brandon Phillips poised to post his best offensive numbers in about five years and a pitching staff that now at least on borders on respectable.
In fact, progress made by guys like Billy Hamilton and Brandon Finnegan over the course of the year give rise to argument that heading into next season the 2017 Cincinnati Reds may have the right blend of emerging youth and experience to seriously compete for a playoff spot.
On the whole, the Reds have scored enough to win, at least win more than they have. Averaging about 4.5 runs per game this season, that figure is trending up since July.
Joey Votto is like the Rain Man of hitting, and his advanced understanding of the art has been incredible to watch as he has put together one of the finest half-seasons in baseball history. This should serve to remind us all that the former Most Valuable Player will be a cornerstone of this lineup for years to come.
Adam Duvall’s emergence as an All-Star outfielder is still more reason for optimism heading into next year. Same is true for Euganio Suarez and the way he has been able to hold down third base full time since Todd Frazier was traded.
Hamilton, to say nothing of the incredible ground he covers in the outfield, has asserted himself as a legitimate leadoff hitter, and appears more confident at the plate than at any time since he joined the Reds.
An on-base percentage of .320 is a marked improvement over his prior two full seasons. Currently batting .261, that would be the highest batting average since coming up from the minors.
Finnegan is on pace to throw over 185 innings this year, and his 4.32 ERA will come down next season as he grows and gains more experience.
A starting rotation heading into 2017 that looks something like: Homey Bailey; Anthony Descalfani; Finnegan; and is rounded out by some combination of Dan Strailey (no guarantee he’s on the team next year), John Lamb, Robert Stephenson, Iglesias and Lorenzen, is one that truly has the talent to be competitive.
At the risk of oversimplifying it, a bullpen can be overhauled in an offseason. Frankly, more work should have been last season to try and avoid the train-wreck of a relief staff that even most casual observers saw coming ahead of this year.
The backend of the bullpen requires the most attention, and if properly solidified could propel next year’s team into wild card contention. For years Reds fans were privileged to watch Aroldis Chapman blow away opposing batters.
The Reds need to avoid any temptation to try and recapture some of Chapman’s magic by replacing him with a fellow countryman. Iglesias, who like Chapman defected from Cuba, has been working out of the bullpen as the coaching staff slowly brings him back from arm troubles that cut short his time in the rotation, after starting Opening Day against the Phillies.
Iglesias, though, has the repertoire of pitches to be a starter. Unlike Chapman who came all out at batters with a 100 mph fastball and a devastating slider, Iglesias has the capacity to change speeds, hit his spots and pitch to contact that in a way that can enable him to successfully navigate an opponent’s batting order two or three times through.
His continued growth is truly one of those big “if” questions that Reds fans will be uttering with their friends during March Madness as they try to talk themselves into contention.
Nothing has been the same since the 2012 playoff collapse at the hands of the San Francisco Giants. Steady decline has given way to a substantial overhaul, and more moves are likely necessary to fill holes in the bullpen and outfield.
The argument here is: Reds fans have a lot more reason for optimism now, than this time last year.